Monday, 22 August 2011

Shroud/Chrysalis by Catherine Richards, 2000

Any guesses at to what's in the package?

Correct! A body.

In this work, two women wrap a spectator from the audience in copper fabric. The idea is that the copper cuts the person off from all the electromagnetic signals that constantly surround us. The person is no longer 'plugged in' to mobile phone, TV, radio or wi-fi signals.

The 'Shroud/Chrysalis' title is symbolic of the ambiguity in the image. Viewers are to decide whether what they are looking at is a chrysalis or a body bag; birth or death. The idea behind this is that it makes us question the influence that all the new technology we are submerged in has. Will it be the death of us or our transition into a new age?

I love the fact that the spectator becomes part of the work. In the environment of an art gallery, where you wouldn't dream of even touching ANYTHING, someone from the audience is asked to exist inside the piece of art itself; the ultimate taboo. It's been said that sometimes later spectators aren't aware that there's a person inside the fabric, and come to the conclusion there's is a machine inside making it 'breathe'.

A body laying in a bag on a glass table makes for a striking image. Its binding conveys ritualistic undertones and its isolation mirrors the isolation of the spectator inside; cut off from both the outside and the virtual world. A holiday on Summerisle springs to mind.

I also love this piece because the questions raised are present only here and not in the corporate world. I'm fascinated by the idea of electrical hypersensitivity, where people report reactions to electromagnetic fields. The symptoms these people claim to experience in response to these fields are numerous, and include headaches, rashes and muscle aches. Although electrical hypersensitivity is not recognised as a medical condition, a very recent study concluded that 'electrical hypersensitivity can occur as a bona fide environmentally-inducible neurological syndrome'.

Shroud/Chrysalis is a fantastic illustration of the way scientists busy themselves looking for answers while artists are the ones who are asking all the important questions. In light of the study I mentioned, perhaps dropping the latter part of its title wouldn't be the end of the world.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Good Bacteria (and not in the Dr Shakamoto sense of the term)

Bacteria. What are they good for? 'Absolutely nothing!' is what stupid people cry.

I won't go into all the brilliant things bacteria do because I'd be here all day. Lets just say they do more for this country than David Cameron. One of the many amazing things they do, which is relevant for my blog, is make pictures.

There are basically lots of clever artists and arty scientists out there who use bacteria to create fantastic works of art. Apparently the first person to ever do this kind of thing was Alexander Flemming, who one day got a bit bored of discovering penicillin and decided to use his microscopic friends to draw a pretty picture of a stick man in his petri dish instead. Jenius!

What I love about bacterial art is that the final piece of work has been created by billions of behind the scenes artists – the bacteria – while the 'artist' dictates what they all do and gives them all their materials and chemical compounds; like Andy Warhol.

Since I'm new to the world of blogging and this week they've been handing out 4 year prison sentences for typing words on Facebook, I'll only infringe the copyright of one picture on my blog today. The winner is Dr Daro Montag.

Montag uses the idea that the world is the result of interacting events in his work. He creates art with microbes (bacteria and fungi), but sometimes breaks out a toad or a few worms from his cabinet. My favourite things he does is let microbes throw a party on photographic film and the observer is treated to a view of the morning after.

My favourite piece by Montag (called 'This Earth') was crated by burying five strips of colour film in the ground and leaving them there for a month. Microbes living in the soil feasted on the film and in the process absorbed different amounts of its dyes, degrading the negatives and leaving this pattern (once the film was developed).

Picture taken from 'Art + Science Now' by Stephen Wilson.

One of the project's goals was to 'make physical that which is there but not seen'. I love this idea. It feels like the bacteria have been given cameras and asked to document their underground life. The only thing that could have made the project better is if some mathematical equations had emerged in the darkroom. I also love the fact that when seen up close, the film looks like a picture from the Hubble telescope. I'm sure there's some sort of cosmic significance in the fact that both things, large and small, look pretty much the same and can only be seen through magnifying lenses. God or aliens, if you're listening, please post your cosmic explanation below.

If you're interested, the specific colours and shapes the bacteria form are a direct result of external stimuli (things like temperature and food). These influences can be due to the actions of the artist, or just because of what other micro-organisms have brought to the party (some add drugs like penicillin to the mix).

More artists like this can be found here.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Norene Leddy, Andrew Milmoe, Ed Bringsd and Melissa Gira. Platforms (part of the Aphrodite project), 2006

These shoes are part of a collection of footwear that have been designed by artists and scientists for sex workers.

Their platform heels are packed with gizmos and gadgets, including GPS tracking, mobile phone technology and the ability to broadcast videos and sound on a built-in screen! As they were developed five years ago they can probably also send you back and forth through time by now.

The idea behind it all is that women can use them as a practical device to promote their business, for example by showing videos or flashing their name on the screen, or, if one of their low-life punters turns out to be of the violent low-life persuasion she can press some buttons on the heels and summon help.

In addition to helping keep sex workers safe, the safety features of these 'social sculptures' are aimed to be a critique of how science and technology research priorities are set. When determining what science and technology projects to develop, moral attitudes and judgements often come into play. These shoes aim to highlight this issue and lead us to question why we pursue what we pursue.

What's also great about this whole project is that the artists responsible are illustrating the way that art can help us to make the best use of emerging technologies and science; in this instance refining them to protect women. This shows that artists can help lead the direction of our research and development, taking us into territories that aren't necessarily driven by targets and profits.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Glass sculpture by Luke Jerram

How many times do you think you've seen this before? Never? What is it? A Jellyfish? I've never seen a jellyfish.

It doesn't matter. It's not a jellyfish.

You've probably seen a picture of the same thing this sculpture is depicting at least once or twice before, more if you've ever studied biology, and about a thousand times if you're a virologist. It might help if you imagine it in green, purple or red, or some other kind of 'dangerous' colours of the dangerous dinosaur variety.

It's actually a sculpture of a HIV virus, designed using scientific photographs and models, made in response to the inaccurate colourful way viruses are depicted by the media and books (just type 'HIV virus' into google images and take a look).

The reality is that a virus is too small to have a colour. This is because they're too small to reflect light; the same reason why we can't see them through a normal microscope.

What's therefore unusual about this piece of art is that its meaning is not all about what you can observe, but about what is missing: colour.

Luke Jerram appears to have a talent for creating huge microscopic critters. You can see more of his glassy friends on his website and the above sculpture can be seen in reality at The Wellcome Collection in London.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

James Acord (1944 – 2011)

James Acord was a sculptor who was the only private individual in the world with a license to own and handle radioactive materials.

His radioactive sculptures aimed to highlight nuclear issues such as long-term waste storage. Interestingly he was neither for or against the nuclear age, he just felt 'we should be dealing with it' and wanted to make the discussion of its issues more open and transparent.

He famously managed to gain his personal license after years of nagging the US department of energy and teaching himself nuclear science. He was so bloody thrilled when he was granted a license that he tattooed the license number across the back of his neck; a 'rock star' move that Brian Cox could only dream of.

A perpetual nag, later on in his career he persuaded the Physics department at Imperial College to allow him to become an artist in residence there; a role which came with a small nuclear reactor.

Although he was a sculptor with few sculptures, his work gives hope that with a lot of hard work and perseverance artists can break into worlds and institutional corridors that seem inhospitable.

James Acord committed suicide earlier this year. He had dreams of building a nuclear Stonehenge.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Scivias by Hildegard von Bingen (1151-1152)

This post is about a type of art that makes my brain and stomach feel like they're turning inside out and my eyeballs are dissolving in their sockets. It's about artists who suffer from migraines and attempt to depict the visual disturbances they get with a migraine aura. For you lucky, lucky, people who have no idea what I'm talking about a migraine aura is basically your brain warning you that in a matter of minutes you're going to be in agony, will probably be vomiting, will possibly be unable to make coherent sentences and if you're as lucky as I used to be you might also be paralysed down one side of your body.

The aura itself isn't much better. The first time I had one I had no idea what was happening to me – all I knew was that all of a sudden no one had a head. I went to the school nurse explaining that I thought I was turning dyslexic because suddenly I couldn't read and on top of this her head was missing. She must have known what was going on but didn't bother telling me because she just gave me one paracetamol, rang my mum and sat me near a bucket.

I'm unable to research any modern artists who do this kind of art because if I type 'migraine art' into Google Images the resulting pictures make me feel really sick, so I've decided to write about a nun from the middle ages.

Hildegard von Bingen was a writer, composer, philosopher, healer, visionary etc etc. And I don't mean 'writer' in the modern sense of the term - she didn't have an eco-fashion blog - she wrote about theology and medicine, created poems, songs and plays, and even invented her own alphabet! In addition to all this she created an illustrated work called 'Scivias' which described 26 of her religious visions. It has over 150,000 words with 35 illustrations. Apparently she had been experiencing these visions since she was five and at the age of 42 god ordered her to share them with the world.

What this has to do with migraine art is that some people, such as Oliver Sacks, have said these visions were migrainous. This theory is based upon her descriptions of the visions she experienced and their accompanying illustrations, which have been said to describe typical symptoms of a migraine attack. Although modern migraine art is very different to these illustrations I still get physical feelings of sickness and twisting in my brain when I look at them, which is good enough evidence for me that what she saw was very similar to what migraineurs see when they experience an aura.

I don't really like the question being about whether she was a migraine sufferer or a visionary, maybe she was both, maybe she was neither. I'm sure there are plenty of other explanations kicking about for the things she saw and felt. Maybe all migraine sufferers are in fact visionaries - when I saw the school nurse's head missing perhaps that area of my visual field was actually focusing on the wrong dimension and was catching a glimpse into another reality where there was no nurse!

The fact that she had these experiences at all was important in itself because it enabled her to partake in unusual activities for women at that time, such as preaching. In this way her experiences paved the way for modern women to transcend such barriers and develop a voice of their own.

Hildegard von Bingen is commemorated on 17th September. Lets all celebrate with cheese, chocolate and some wed wine.

In keeping with this theme here's a self-portrait I did when I had a migraine.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Gunther von Hagens’ dead (1994 – present)

There are more than 10,000 people in the world who have signed away their body to a german man called Gunther von Hagens. The plan is that when they die he will preserve their corpses in various states of dissection, arrange their limbs into different poses and stick them in one of his ‘body worlds’ exhibitions for people to gawp at and try pose for photos next to without security seeing.

The people are preserved through a process called plastination, which replaces water and fat molecules with plastics. This means that the dead people don’t smell or decay. Below is a picture of the 'hardening and posing' process in action.

The first exhibition was in Tokyo in 1995 and there have been many more since all over the world. Their aim is to educate people about the human body, with the hope that this will lead to better health awareness. For example, people with liver cirrhosis, artificial heart valves and prosthetic limbs have all been exhibited. The bodies are also in various states of unpeeling, as to show different body systems.

Interestingly, Hagens and his team have been accused of presenting the dead people in gender stereotyped ways. It’s been noted that the males are shown in ‘heroic’ roles and females in more ‘passive’ ways. Examples of males include The Rearing Horse Rider, The Fencer, The Runner and The Chess Player, as opposed to The Figure Skater, The kneeling Lady and The Yoga Lady. Personally if I was one of Hagens’ 10,000 walking-plastinated I’d want to make sure that the preservation of my body wasn’t also going to preserve out-dated gender stereotypes along the way. I really don’t want give the wrong impression when in two thousand years aliens come to a desolate planet earth and resurrect Hagens’ army.

If you're interested in what someone like Hagens might look like here's a picture of him and his largest ever plastinated corpse. To join in visit

Bloody brilliant.